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Blessed Are You

beatitudesMatthew 5: 1-12
Introduction to the reading
Our reading this morning is the beginning of what is known as the Sermon on the Mount.  Jesus goes up on the mountain to teach the law, as Moses went up to Mt. Sinai to receive God’s Law, the Ten Commandments. 

The Beatitudes are some of the most beautiful, comforting and hopeful passages in holy Scripture – and yet some of the most challenging as well.  They clearly declare that circumstances people naturally see as unfortunate are nonetheless genuinely fortunate in the truest sense.  At the same time, the Beatitudes confirm the blessing of God’s presence with those who live in humility, mercy, righteousness and peacemaking.

The reading
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him.  Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

  • “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  That is, those who are broken, who have come to the end of their own strength and resources, who are in dire need of some good news.
  • “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”  When you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you or when you lament over the state of the world, you can be embraced by the One who gives ultimate comfort.
  • “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”  The biblical understanding of meekness is not being milquetoast, but rather taking on humility and gentleness.
  • “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they will be filled.”  That is, not so much those who are lacking in righteousness, but those who are driven by a spiritual yearning that compels them to strive for justice, peace and love.
  • “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.”
  • “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”
  • “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”
  • “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
  • “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.  Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”  Jesus makes it clear that working for the sake of the good news – being Jesus people – is often challenging, difficult and risky.

Over the centuries, people have understood the Beatitudes from a number of different theological perspectives:

  • As an expression of eschatological hope, that is, how things will be different at the end of time, when the kingdom of heaven comes into being.  While life may be difficult now, those who faithfully endure can look forward to that day, perhaps in this life, but more likely in the life to come:  they will be comforted, they will be filled, they will receive mercy, and so on.  This perspective is captured in a verse from Revelation: They will hunger and thirst no more and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.
  • As ethical statements and instruction on following God’s commandments to care for those in need, to welcome the stranger, to work for justice and peace, to strive for righteousness and goodness in the world. 
  • As a countercultural political statement that challenges pre-conceptions.  We live in a world where blessings seem to be bestowed upon those who succeed, often at the expense of others.  The stark divide between the haves and have-nots is still starkly apparent, and not just economically, but socially and racially as well.  But Jesus seems to say that this kind of situation will not stand in the light of what God has in mind for the world.  Rather, it serves to power up those who would seek to make changes.  Paul reiterates Jesus.  In words from his first letter to the Corinthians:  God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are… (1 Cor.1: 27-28)

Today I want to take a closer look at the fourth Beatitude - Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they will be filled - and then, I want to share with you an article published in a recent edition of Christian Century that seemed to me a striking illustration.  We are offered the view of one who is hungry and thirsty and who is filled, but also the view of a one who, engaged in the challenging, difficult and risky business of working for God’s kingdom, is also blessed in quite a striking way.

As you listen, notice the structure of the sentences.  Picture the scenes in your mind’s eye.  Pick up on the changes in tone and atmosphere.  And of course, listen to the words.

“Shocked by grace”
by Matt Fitzgerald, pastor,
Saint Paul’s United Church of Christ, Chicago

Much of the story is hard to recall, but certain details are engraved in my memory, stamped right into me.  I was a new pastor interested in writing, so when a magazine asked for an interview of a death row inmate, I jumped at the chance.  I was asked to visit an Ohio prisoner named David Steffen.  In the 1970s David had been convicted of brutally murdering a teenaged girl.  Twenty-one years later, at the time of my visit, he was still awaiting execution.

I had never been in a prison before.  It was raining, and guards drove me through the empty, gloomy yard on a golf cart.  I was frightened.  It was a barren place.  The loops in the concertina wire looked vicious.  One guard drank a can of Mountain Dew as we drove.  She didn’t speak, just stared at me malevolently.  When we arrived on death row I walked through several gates and checkpoints before meeting with David in a classic government room with fluorescent lights and gray plastic furniture.  Death row looked more like the DMV than a dungeon and was all the more menacing as a result.
The killer looked younger than his age.  His skin was smooth, and he wore his brown hair short.  His face was framed by a pair of thick, heavy glasses, the kind hipsters wear.  We sat across from each other at a small table.  As we spoke he kept his eyes on my hands – ready, it seemed, to react defensively if I picked up my pen or reached for a bottle of water.  But aside from this wariness he was remarkably peaceful for a man living under such intense pressure.
I was there to ask him about God.  I noticed right away that every time God’s name was mentioned, David referred to God’s mercy; he spoke of “God’s mercy” over and over again in a sort of litany.  Each time the words grace or mercy were mentioned he prefaced them with adjectives familiar to any Protestant:  “unmerited,” “freely given,” “undeserved.”
Bandying sacred language back and forth with a murderer unnerved me.  I loved doing this with members of my congregation.  But there in the prison, church talk became unwieldy, uncontrollable.  The ease with which David spoke the spiritual language bothered me and pushed hard against my faith.  All those years ago I was sure that I knew who deserved unmerited mercy – and I was not certain that David deserved it.  So I pushed back.

I scolded him with Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s caution about cheap grace:  “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance...Cheap grace is without discipleship, without the cross, without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”  Then I asked him if the weight of his sin had perhaps caused him to seize upon God’s love too easily.  Had he grabbed for mercy before truly reckoning with the horror of his crime?
I was about to learn that a young pastor didn’t need to chasten a murderer who’d had 21 years to ponder these things.  He knew all about cheap grace.  He had found the concept organically through years of reflection and had wrestled with it, walked right through it and come out the other side.  Here’s what he said to me:

The gospel requires us not simply to be sorry, but to be transformed by our sorrow.  For me, this is a daily transformation.  I’ll never forget my crime.  It is always deeply, deeply disturbing to me.  But there has to come a point where you receive forgiveness and then forgive yourself – not in order to justify your actions, but in order to accept God’s love.

Then he told me a story, gesturing with his hands so that the chains tying them together clanked and rattled in accompaniment.  Outside his cell, said David, there are two fences, each about 20 feet high and covered with barbed wire.  The space in between the fences is empty, a no-man’s land designed to strand escapees.
A rabbit lives between the fences, David says, and he watches it every morning. “The rabbit has no sense of where it is.  It doesn’t know it’s living out its life in a maximum security prison.  It eats clover and dandelions and wakes up early.  It has no sense of being restricted by all these fences.  It’s the same for me.  I’m in prison, but I’m not letting myself be restricted simply because I’m wearing shackles and handcuffs.  I’m a person, and I’m a person who is loved and forgiven by God.
I was shocked.  In front of me was a man who had brutally killed a teenager; in front of me was a man who was loved by God.  I was so startled that I jumped back from the table and stalked out of the room.
This man had claimed the love of God as his own.  He had claimed what I preached.  And yet when the evidence was in front of me, I could not believe it.  I’d spent a lot of energy trying to contain God’s presence.  I had carefully learned rituals and chosen music and crafted sermon sentences that aimed to cultivate grace.
What I had either forgotten or never learned is that right next to all of this is something that’s out of control:  the power of God.  It’s a surging and crackling energy, a wildness that the church hints at but doesn’t own.  When I felt it come alive in that prison it made me jump because it defied a deeply ingrained, childish belief in justice and decency.  How could a murderer grab hold of the same love I’d been given?
Sitting there with David, I’d felt the pressure of a greater reality pushing against the neat division in my heart between those who are unworthy of God’s love and those who are worthy.  David Steffen had been forgiven.  He’d claimed the love of God as his own, and that claim threatened me.  I never would have guessed that the most unnerving thing I would encounter on death row was the grace of God.
When I walked back through the prison yard the rain had let up and the guard who had maintained a steely silence on our way in was now pleasant and talkative.  Dogs were playing in the prison yard, chasing tennis balls thrown by inmates.  The guard explained that these dogs had been removed from abusive homes and were being trained by prisoners before returning to the world.  I fought back tears.  Suddenly everything seemed brighter.
Instead of leaving David behind, it seemed as if he had come with me.  Or at least the fact of his salvation had.  Or perhaps the [Holy] One who had accomplished it walked nearer now. (Fitzgerald 12-13)

I believe that everyone hungers and thirsts after righteousness.  I believe that the world hungers and thirsts after righteousness.  
Blessed are those who do, for in God’s time, they will be filled.

Fitzgerald, Matt. “Shocked by grace.”  Christian Century. 22 Jan. 2014: 12-13.

Rev. Kathryn Henry
Peapack Reformed Church
Gladstone, NJ
January 29, 2017

khenryRev. Kathryn Henry
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